Off the beaten track

Christian Wolmar begins a three-part investigation into the state of our railways with a trip through rural Wales
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It was a mystery why the fully laid table of four seats in the dining car of the 8.15am remained empty throughout the whole journey from Euston to Birmingham. Punters there were aplenty, eagerly gobbling up the famous heart-endangering British Rail breakfast. But when one bespectacled chap tried to sit on the virgin table at Euston, the waitress had instructed him: "Not there, love, it's for passengers getting on at Watford."

But, oddly, when at Watford, a couple of businessmen had tried to park themselves there, the waitress had shooed them off with a cursory "Please sit over there", sending them off to perch uncomfortably on the last two available free seats crushed up against two people who were already halfway through their bacon and eggs.

The table remained pristine. As we left the train at Birmingham, the waitress's motives became clear. Four new breakfasters sat at the table: the four waiters and waitresses happily tucking into their Great British Rail Breakfasts.

It is this "sod the customer" attitude that has created an ambivalence in the public mind about the railways. We love trains and everything about them. We may not go on them much, and we may complain about their failings, but they offer a kind of permanence and stability that is attractive to the essentially conservative British spirit, which likes to hark back to a better age. We want the railways to be there as a kind of back-up guarantee of mobility should our wheels, or our bodies, fail. Railways have provided the spine of Britain since the 19th century; they are part of our culture and history. But when we actually take to the railways, we come up against BR which, over its 50-year life, we have learnt to hate. The Government thought this contempt for BR would translate into support for privatisation and encouraged John Major to tread where even Margaret Thatcher feared to go.

Yet so far, the Tory politicians seemed to have completely misjudged the balance of power between these two feelings. Rail privatisation has met almost universal opposition because the depth of affection felt towards the railways has outweighed our disaffection with BR.

The staff of that much maligned organisation sometimes deserves a better press. In planning a three-day journey to assess the state of Britain's railways, I went to the Euston station Travel Centre for information on the train times. The young clerk, a Miss Hedge according to one of the name badges that have sprouted on every BR lapel, nurtured by its new "customer-focused orientation", helpfully trawled through the computer to find the right trains. The journey was to take me to Birmingham, along several rural lines in Wales, around the Cumbrian coast to Carlisle, and then back, via York, along the modernised East Coast main line to King's Cross. After her search she hit one of those obstacles that have turned BR's inefficiency into folklore. While the information was available on the computer, the machine could not print it out.

Miss Hedge, herself a train enthusiast, took to laboriously writing out the details. As she laboured, providing me with information that turned out to be accurate to the minute, an embarrassing queue of perhaps a dozen people built up behind me.

It is the Miss Hedges of the railways that passengers fear will disappear with privatisation. The 25 lines are in the middle of being sold off. Three are due to be sold by the end of the year, another four in the spring. The rolling stock is now owned by three companies which are already the subject of private sector bids. Railtrack, which owns the bits that do not move, is due to go private in the spring. With this plethora of conflicting interests the reliability of that most basic of train details, when it leaves, from which platform, bound to where, will be thrown into doubt.

No part of the rail system will be left untouched by privatisation and that may well explain the new-found tolerance for British Rail you can find, especially on rural lines that are most likely to close. The passengers I encountered were almost unanimously fearful of the Government's plans and were already blaming privatisation for many of the railway's failings, even when it was the dead hand of BR at work.

Back on the 8.15am from Euston, the bespectacled chap, Simon Davies, had his pet privatisation tale. His local train at Barnhurst in Kent was unable to start its journey because the guard was rostered to arrive on the preceding train which could not pull into the station - because the other train had not left: "That happened two days running," he said. He blamed it on the lack of liaison between the two rail companies.

From the low-ceilinged Birmingham New Street, surely the ugliest station in Britain, I got the train to Aberystwyth, which left on time. I was heading for a relic of a bygone age, the central Wales line that runs through tiny communities barely connected by road to the rest of the country. Its survival is a matter of politics. It escaped closure during the Beeching years because, according to David Henshaw, author of the excellent The Great Railway Conspiracy (Leading Edge, pounds 7.95), it "passed through so many marginal parliamentary constituencies no one dared to close it". In privatised railway it is lines such as this that will be vulnerable.

I had expected to find its rickety rolling stock empty. I was wrong on both counts. Regional Railways runs a two-hourly "Alphaline" service, which means that the trains have a trolley catering service, telephones and a seat reservation service. The train was teeming with people who had taken up the offer of a ranger ticket to travel anywhere within the local network for just pounds 15.

As we went through Shrewsbury, which lost its direct InterCity service from London a couple of years ago, a local businesswoman sitting opposite explained what a disaster it had been. Closing a service is like relegating a town down the social and economic hierarchy, cutting off its blood supply of business and tourists and people going about their family affairs. That exclusion is something that surely some of the more isolated villages in mid-Wales will face if privatisation proceeds.

The single-coach carriage Cambrian Coaster that left from Machynlleth along the Cambrian coast was over half-full but only because of discounts of up to 75 per cent introduced with the new winter timetable, the guard explained. "Usually, it would be empty at this time, but they cut the fares and it's brought the people back." Of course, even if the train were full every day, it would still not pay for itself. Railway passengers have always been made to pay for the use of the infrastructure, which means that all the signalling and track maintenance has to be met out of revenue. These rural lines will always need subsidy, which is why their fate after privatisation will be precarious.

The cliche, repeated by several passengers, is that the railways are the heart of these communities. Indeed, neglected as they are, with unstaffed stations and weeds growing through the sleepers, they remain an important way for large sections of the community to travel. Here were pensioners with shopping, mums - and some dads - with children, families playing cards and the occasional drunk, all travelling in the best way available since local roads are poor.

At Porthmadog, you reach an unlikely vision of Britain's railway future. Two parts of the British Rail network are linked by the private Ffestiniog railway. At Blaenau Ffestiniog, BR has tried to make a virtue of the age of its 40-year-old rolling stock by painting it traditional green and yellow livery. The local kids love it, waving to the train as it passes, still an event in such a small town, but the gimmick only serves to make the journey more depressing since the train, with barely half a dozen passengers, a few carless pensioners and a student, is embarrassingly empty. The line's beauty, running for long periods next to the River Conwy, should ensure its survival, but there are no guarantees under the new railway. The line used to earn pounds 750,000 a year from the local nuclear power station at Trawsfynydd but it, too, has closed down, putting the future of the line in doubt.

Llandudno, where the train ends, boasts an elegant station which has gates with the initials of the old London, Midland and Scottish railway, wrought in iron. It is neat and repainted, but all life has been removed: there are no staff to assure nervous passengers which is the right train, no buffet to get a warming muddy cup of tea, no waiting room for a tearful farewell. "There used to be a roof all the way up the platform," says my only fellow traveller, "but they pulled it down." Indeed, only half the station concourse is covered, testimony to the years of neglect. The incongruous green and yellow train dropped me off and with almost indecent haste revved up and sped down the line.

Travelling on these rural lines helps to explain why the railways are loved. These journeys are an occasion, a raison d'etre in themselves, not just a means of getting from A to B. It is this that has made it almost politically impossible, since the Beeching cuts, to close any rail lines.

The worry for users of these lines is that once the more lucrative and well-used commuter and long-distance lines have been franchised out, there will be no takers for these rural services and no money left in the Government's coffers. So the lines will close, the bridges will be dismantled, weeds will grow, cycle routes will be planned and stations will become restaurants and workshops. All very nice in their way but not a railway. Railways are not trains and tracks; they only come to life when they are filled with people, when the rhythm of the timetable and the track harmonise with the rhythms of people's lives. In these communities, those rhythms are about to be grievously disrupted.

Tomorrow Christian Wolmar travels from Llandudno to Carlisle to find out what railway workers think about privatisation